- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

No borders, no nations. What would a world existing under these conditions look like? What would it sound like?

The multinational band members of Balkan Beat Box have some interesting theories.

Through their music, they’ve formed a delicate bubble that hovers above the boundaries imposed by the music industry, by governments and by societies whose existence depends on categorization and separation.

The sphere created by Balkan Beat Box is a place where Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Bulgarians and New Yorkers can unite onstage; where they can perform tunes that draw on their collective heritage; and where songs that feature klezmer melodies, Arabic chants, Eastern European vocals, North African drums, cosmopolitan electronica flourishes, reggae toasting and a gypsy influence don’t just languish in the neglected “world music” bins.

It’s a place where said music incites riotous outbreaks — of dancing, that is.

The founders of this un-nation are Israeli-born saxophonist Ori Kaplan and percussionist-programmer Tamir Muskat, who came together in 2004 with an idea for a new project. The former had branched out from klezmer roots to avant jazz and rock, while the latter had cut his teeth playing and producing for groups like Big Lazy and Firewater. Both artists had worked with Gogol Bordello, the acclaimed purveyors of raucous “gypsy punk cabaret.”

At Balkan Beat Box’s inception, the musical duo resided in New York City, where the multicultural sounds of the streets inspired them.

“I was living in Chinatown on the Lower East Side,” says Mr. Muskat. “Different neighborhoods all came together there: black, Jewish, Asian, Latino. Basically, running around was about hearing all the musics of these groups.”

In the studio, Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Muskat formulated their own diverse mixture of sounds, scouting out talent in the Big Apple and overseas who would bring their own flavors to the pot.

The band’s self-titled debut (released in fall of 2005) enlisted Moroccan gnawa player Hassan Ben Jaffar, Bulgarian-born singer Vlada Tomova, fiery Israeli emcee Tomer Yosef, New York-based composer Dana Leong and more. After the album’s completion, they took the show on the road and developed an electric stage presence.

Balkan Beat Box’s touring lineup rotated frequently, but always meant a stage teeming with musicians and equipment.

After touring with Matisyahu, blowing the lid off Bonnaroo’s “burlesque” tent and storming Central Park SummerStage with a 40-person troupe of samba dancers, the duo went back into the studio to try and bottle some of the live show’s explosive energy.

The result is “Nu Med,” due out May 15 on the JDub label and destined to bring the group’s message of musical unity to a greater audience.

“Digital Monkey” might be the most radio-friendly cut. It’s like a musical game of Chutes and Ladders, where listeners advance alternately along a furtive bass line and a nouveau klezmer horn riff, glide up and down electronically devised slides, and receive instructions via Mr. Yosef’s smoky toasts: “Pick it up now, shake it down now, your guns are not welcome.”

The vocalist’s increased presence on this album bathes tracks in a sun-splashed reggae glow, yet the disc is no less eclectic than the previous effort.

The crew built the belly dance-worthy “Pachima” around a Moroccan verse they heard pal Gilber Gilmore singing to himself in the hallway one day. “Mexico City” traipses along like a chill Citizen Cope ditty that’s been reinterpreted to suit the bullfighting ring. The ITunes bonus track, “Ramallah Tel Aviv,” is bouncy Israeli hip-hop that calls listeners to the dance floor.

Needless to say, both live and at-home audiences have a lot of points of entry into Balkan Beat Box’s work, which draws concert crowds in Bloomington, Ind., just as well as it does in Leipzig, Germany, and Kibbutz Dan, in northern Israel.

“If you really asked me why people connect to this music with the same energy,” says Mr. Muskat, “I would assume it’s more connected to the fact that people are more in search of their roots and identity these days. You definitely see it in people going back to religion.”

He recalls that in the early stages, the band was particularly “suspicious” of Americans “being able to digest” their tunes, but their fears were assuaged when U.S. audiences went “crazy for this music.”

When he ponders it now, the reaction makes sense to him. “People became Americans so quickly, maybe they forgot where they came from,” he says. He theorizes that this music somehow “reminds them of home.”

Lineage is obviously a key element for the outfit, which mines the world’s traditional folk traditions for ideas, but the greater focus is on what happens next — on starting a dialogue through seemingly innocuous dance music that spills over into social and even political action.

“I wouldn’t think we’d call our new album ‘Nu Med’ if we didn’t think that,” says Mr. Muskat. “That would be the payoff of running around the world; sometimes I’m not sure if we’re ambassadors or musicians, really.”

“We’re no government, and we don’t have the power of politicians,” he adds, “but I hope at the end of one of our cycles we see some changes.”

WHAT: Balkan Beat Box in concert

WHERE: Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. tomorrow


PHONE: 703/228-1850

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